Volunteer Museum Ambassadors make all of our visitors VIPs

By Volunteer Museum Ambassador Larry Margasak

Do Dorothy's ruby slippers still work if you tap them together three times? What's with the punctuation in our national anthem? Where can I find a dragon on display?

As a museum "ambassador," I am among 20 volunteers in blue shirts who greet visitors and answer questions like these. We get to share in the curiosity of a child, the nostalgia of returning visitors, the treasure hunt of students assigned to find important historical objects, and the amazement of those experiencing our eye on the nation's history for the first time.

An ambassador in a blue shirt stands by the museum map and helps a mom and daughter

We can tell you where to find the First Ladies dresses, the nearest restrooms, and Julia Child's kitchen. You only have 45 minutes before your tour bus leaves? Interested in the Civil War or pirate ships? Here from another country? We can help recommend a meaningful museum visit just for you.

There's more. We're also traffic cops when elevators and escalators break and extra eyes for museum security. We enforce the rule against eating outside the two dining areas in the building. (Crumbs could invite pests into the museum, which could endanger artifacts both on display and in storage.)

"The Museum Ambassador program was conceived as a way to bridge the gap between two other existing volunteer corps here at the museum—our information desk specialists, who provide orientation assistance when guests arrive, and our volunteer docents, who provide Highlights tours, facilitate hands-on demonstrations, and circulate through many of our exhibitions to interact with visitors," said Director of Visitor Services Andrea Lowther.

Group photo of ambassadors in blue shirts in museum lobby

The program was a pilot that ran from March-May 2014, but "we were so pleased with the results that we've extended the pilot indefinitely," Lowther said.

Twenty of the original class of 29 ambassadors are still on duty and have collectively assisted 80,000 visitors (yes, we keep a count). A new class is starting soon and you can apply to be a Museum Ambassador if the opportunity sounds fun to you.

Ambassador speaks to visitor near museum Welcome Center

Some of the kids' questions are the best, and help us learn more about U.S. history. The young boy who noticed the question mark in the first stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner prompted me to consult the museum's website. A blog post explained that author Francis Scott Key—who wrote the song in 1814 during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore—may have been expressing his own anxiety about his young country.

Sometimes kids make us think on our feet. One day, a young girl asked ambassador Jim Kidney about Dorothy's ruby red slippers, wanting to know, "Do they still work?"

Museum ambassador by map near Conestoga Wagon

"Should I lie?" Kidney thought to himself. "What would her mom think of me and the Smithsonian, no matter what I said? I am supposed to be an 'ambassador' after all, and ambassadors are not in the business of ruining child fantasies. But the answer came to me, a native Washingtonian, almost immediately as I surveyed the possibilities. Pass the buck!"

Kidney told the young visitor, "Your Mom knows the answer to that question. You should ask her. Both mother and child departed seemingly satisfied with the answer."

Ruby slippers, bow on front, heel in back, sequins galore

Sometimes, visitors come for a specific item and are disappointed if it's not on display. We can let you know if President Lincoln's hatFonzie's jacket, and Kermit the Frog aren't currently on display and recommend other interesting objects to see, such as the Gunboat Philadelphia, a huge stretch of Route 66, and massive murals chronicling African American history. We often explain that the museum's west wing is currently closed as we prepare to open new exhibitions.

When artifacts are no longer on display, we explain that many objects can only be exposed to light for a short period of time and that rotation can help curators showcase more of the museum's collections over time. (For more on why most exhibitions are temporary and don't last forever, I recommend this helpful blog post.) Object rotation is especially noticeable in American Stories, where you can see Archie and Edith Bunker's chairs.

There are touching moments, too. A military wife shared her reflections with me after seeing the Star-Spangled Banner on display.

In many cases, we direct visitors to exhibitions that will mean something in their lives. I direct visitors from North Carolina to see a lunch counter from Greensboro where the student sit-in movement to protest segregation made headlines. When I see visitors wearing military emblems, I direct them to the stirring third floor exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. I directed two women of Vietnamese background to that exhibition because they wanted to see the Huey helicopter that played such an important role in the Vietnam War.

Huey Helicopter (nose portion facing camera) in exhibit with panels

Some visitors aren't sure which Smithsonian museum they are in. It's easy to point those searching for the Hope Diamond to the National Museum of Natural History and the Declaration of Independence to the National Archives. But when a little boy from Japan asked to see the "dragon," it took me a while to realize he'd find dinosaurs in a new exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History.

I received one request that would have been quite common in years past, but seemed a bit odd in today's cell phone world.

"Do you know," he asked, "where I can find a pay phone?" That one really stumped me. I sent him to our Welcome Center to see if they could help. If he had come back my way, I would have lent him my cell.

Larry Margasak is a retired Washington journalist who volunteers as an ambassador, a researcher for the museum's political history section, and a researcher/writer for the Steinway Diary Project, a program that researches the diary of piano manufacturer William Steinway and his role in American history.